The Farmers' Bank

If the world loses its seeds, our food supply could follow. A new vault on a remote Arctic island may represent our last line of agricultural defense

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It's a Maxim that's as true for farming as it is for your home PC: always back up your data. In agriculture, data take the form of seeds, and farmers have been saving seed varieties for millenniums. If disaster struck and an entire crop were lost, a cache of seeds could mean the difference between survival and starvation.

We still save seeds today, mostly in national seed banks that often specialize in native crops: pistachios in Iran, rice in the Philippines. When a disaster like the Irish potato blight of the 1840s hits, scientists can search the seed bank for an old variety that might prove resistant. Since pests and pathogens are constantly evolving, a well-stocked seed bank "is our best line of defense," says Geoff Hawtin, director-general of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia.

But that defense is in peril. Often, the seed banks with the richest collections are located in unstable countries that don't take care of them. When Afghanistan's seed bank was looted during the Taliban's rule, rare varieties of walnuts, cherries and apricots were lost. Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an agricultural NGO, estimates that as many as half the seed banks in the developing world may be at risk.

To ensure that an agricultural doomsday never comes, Fowler and his colleagues have organized the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an international seed bank built into a mountain on a Norwegian island in the Arctic. A Fort Knox for seeds, the vault will be a backup for the backups and will eventually be expanded to include genetic samples of every crop on the planet. The first shipments, from more than 36 African nations, arrived at the end of January, and there will be room for as many as 4.5 million samples once the facility opens Feb. 26. The specimens will be kept very dry at around 0°F. Properly stored, some seeds can last thousands of years; even if the facility lost power, the seeds are likely to remain viable in the Arctic climate. The cost of construction—mostly borne by the Norwegian government—is less than $9 million. "If you think of it as an insurance policy for the world, you can't beat the value," says Fowler.

The need for the vault grows even greater as industrial agriculture continues to narrow the genetic diversity of plants, focusing on select, high-producing crop varieties. Global warming will also create demand for a stockpile of seeds that may not be suited to today's growing conditions but could be just right for tomorrow's. "We'll need crop varieties for hotter, dryer, wetter and colder climates," says Fowler. Sometime in the future, the vault of last resort could end up more like an ATM.